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Broadband Britain: Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or other?
Monday 29 March 2010 06:36:10 by Sebastien Lahtinen

The main political parties all accept the importance of securing a strong digital future with super-fast broadband, but each has made vague promises, leaving out some crucial factors that would allow us to hold them to account if they form part of the next government. We see some differences in the plans for how next generation broadband will be funded, in particular the level and timing of government intervention, but we don’t have clarity from any party on both the question of what 'next generation' broadband means in terms of speeds, and how universal will access to this high speed broadband be? In other words, will they guarantee that every single household will get it?

The budget last week confirmed the government's plans to implement its 50 pence a month levy on phone lines (the "broadband tax") to fund next generation broadband for the hard-to-reach areas known as the 'final third'. As the general election draws nearer, we are seeing more politicians talk about broadband and what it can do to help the economy.

Last year, the government published the Digital Britain Report which informed the drafting of the Digital Economy Bill. This legislation covers a number of different areas ranging from public service broadcasting to the challenges posed by unlawful distribution of content online. The report also affirmed the need for universal access to broadband.

Labour Party

The Digital Britain Report identified two components to ensuring a successful digital economy in terms of broadband availability; "the right network today and the right network tomorrow". This has resulted in two mechanisms to ensure universal access.

To tackle the short term requirements, the government introduced the concept of a Universal Service Commitment (USC) of 2Mbps to 'virtually' everyone in the UK by 2012. This is approximately half the average broadband speed across the country today. This will be provided for by using the surplus from the Digital Switchover project. It is expected that both copper and wireless solutions will be used to deliver this, depending on the area.

The Labour government has also promised 'next generation broadband' to 90% of the UK by 2017, funded by the 50 pence per month levy on fixed phone lines. This is expected to raise about £1bn over seven years and will be used to support projects for the 'final third' of the UK which would otherwise be unlikely to receive a super fast broadband service. There are some exemptions which we expect for the levy, including social telephony services designed to provide basic landline services to everyone. This levy (plus VAT) will be collected by telecommunications providers from October 2010, if the Labour party wins the general election.

In a speech on 22 March 2010, two days prior to the budget, Gordon Brown said that proposals for online delivery of government services "depend on reaching 100 per cent" coverage of next generation broadband by 2020 and he expects to "make Britain the leading superfast broadband digital power creating 100 per cent access to every home", which suggested to analysts that the budget would contain additional funding. Channel 4 correspondent Benjamin Cohen queried this and did understand this to mean truly universal coverage, although it later transpired that this was an 'aspirational' statement, not government policy.

Conservative Party

The Conservative Party supports the Universal Service Commitment of 2Mbps introduced by the current government by the same 2012 deadline, however it has also stated that it will deliver 100Mbps to the 'majority of homes' by 2017 which would possibly be funded by setting aside (top-slicing) part of the BBC license fee at some point after 2012. This funding would then be used as loans or on a 'matched funding' basis to support investment in high speed broadband in difficult areas.

In addition to this, the Conservatives also proposed that BT should open up access to its underground ducts and telegraph poles so competitors like lay their own fibre as in France and Singapore. BT have since confirmed they are looking at implementing such solutions in any case. The Conservatives would also change the rating system for fibre networks to remove "all current disadvantages suffered by new operators", which refers to the way non-domestic rates (a type of council tax for businesses that run fibre optic networks) are calculated which many argue prefer companies like BT.

Generally speaking, the Conservative Party is keen to encourage private investment and believes this will go far. They accept that some government intervention may be necessary but as far as next generation broadband is concerned, they would look to do this from 2012 onwards.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats also support the government's plans to deliver 2Mbps by 2012 including using the digital switchover surplus to fund this, although they believe 2Mbps is an 'unambitious target'. A key difference is that the LibDems believe that the delivery of the USC should be combined with the project for rollout of next generation broadband, so those who currently can't get broadband would be among the first to get next-gen broadband. They also believe mobile broadband could have a role to play in some hard-to-reach areas and they therefore believe efficient use of the radio spectrum is important.

In terms of speed, the Liberal Democrats would like to see the 'vast majority' of the country being able to access 40Mbps+ speeds by 2017, and they believe to deliver this, immediate intervention and targeted funding is necessary, although they admit "it won’t be possible for absolutely everyone to receive next generation access" immediately.

The LibDems oppose the Conservative policy of top-slicing the BBC license fee and support the current Labour administration's 50 pence per month levy on telephone lines "if applied properly and with exemptions for the least well off". They also welcome BT's decision to open up access to their ducts. The LibDems believe that it is important to encourage more services that make use of high speed broadband to drive demand.


The policies of the main three parties mirror in many ways their general attitude to government intervention, and the effect of these policies will no doubt vary depending on where you live and your political ideology. If you reside in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, some of the slowest regions of the UK in terms of average broadband speeds, you will also wish to consider the policies of parties involved in devolved administrations which may have significant influence through additional policies.

Party / Policy Short Term Long Term
Labour 2Mbps USC to 'virtually' everyone by 2012 funded by Digital Switchover surplus funds Deliver 'next generation broadband' (speed unspecified) by 2017 for 90% of households funded by 50p/month levy on phone lines.
Conservative Generally agrees with Labour policy. 100Mbps to 'majority of homes' by 2017 funded possibly by top-splicing BBC license fee from 2012. Expects market to lead with government intervention from 2012 onwards. Encourage competition by requiring BT to open up ducts/telegraph poles.
Liberal Democrat Generally agrees with Labour policy. Would combine with project for next-generation broadband. Expects 40Mbps+ to 'vast majority' by 2017. Agrees with Labour's 50/month levy on phone lines but believes some exemptions necessary. Welcomes BT ducts/telegraph poles being opened up.

In terms of the 2012 goals, the government has started putting into place the infrastructure to deliver the Universal Service Commitment (2Mbps by 2012) and as the policy is supported by the other two major parties, this is likely to proceed as planned no matter what the result of the general election. In terms of the long term claims, we believe the promises made are in effect no different between these parties as each uses wording which is ambiguous on either speed and/or coverage. In other words, 100Mbps to 'majority', 40Mbps+ to 'vast majority' and 'next generation broadband' to 90% are quite compatible with current technology.

BT is in the process of rolling out fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services which will be able to deliver up to 40 Mbps (potentially more) to a large part of the UK (possibly up to 90%, although this is uncertain) and Virgin Media is already providing a 50 Mbps service which is available to over 50% of the homes in the UK, with trials under way for 100 and 200Mbps services which are expected to be launched by the end of 2010 and 2011 respectively. Finland has promised 100Mbps for everyone by 2015 and some other countries are already talking about delivering 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) services.

We believe the key challenge is how quickly each party can deliver 100Mbps to 100% of the UK. We also believe that the focus on headline download speed does not address the real problems of ensuring that everyone in the UK is able to receive a service that is fit for purpose, and which allows them to take part in the digital economy. It is therefore important that both upstream speed, quality of service, and average speeds are also included.


Posted by cyberdoyle over 7 years ago
Your last paragraph says it all. The key challenge is to provide a service fit for purpose. Well said.
There is no point in patching up the old copper any longer, as it isn't fit for purpose for Next Gen Access. Where copper can't deliver we have to replace with fibre. Otherwise we will be suffering bottlenecks the rest of our lives.
Posted by rian over 7 years ago
Remember, they are politican but not technican, lol.
Posted by systemx over 7 years ago
While this is a Broadband forum, I think we should take a broader view of Goven policy. None of the statements above mean anything in terms of what a new goven may do in respect to BB, and there will be big problems facing whoever gains power.
If we do not deal with the closure of most Nuclear power stations soon , then we will be sitting in the dark and it will not matter how fast your BB can run.
Posted by herdwick over 7 years ago
"how quickly each party can deliver 100Mbps to 100% of the UK." - you seem to imply that the Government is going to deliver something. Is it ? Or is it jst going to throw a bit of money into the market place and hope.
Posted by davidmcnaught over 7 years ago
Politicians don't need to dabble - just facilitate and leave it to the markets. Fast broadband is already happening (Virgin, H2O Networks, LTE/WIMAX etc).

By 2017 mobile broadband will be very fast, private fibre networks will have expanded, FTTC will be widespread and fast internet will be available to most people without the government taking an active role in the market.

The only place where the government's role might need to be more active is in remote communities that the market would be slower to cater for.
Posted by Dixinormous over 7 years ago
I agree David and prefer the Tory approach of removing government barriers such as the business rate calculation and facilitating that private investment.
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 7 years ago
Even if a radical programme of 100Mbps fibre to every home happened by 2012, we would still have bottlenecks.

The backhaul capacity is already fibre based, and unless committed bit rates are increased we will see even larger peak to off-peak swings as line speeds go higher. This is bourne out by experience as ADSL speeds have got faster, and the competitive market has driven prices down.

Pay more, get more, pretty simple.
Posted by Dixinormous over 7 years ago
Careful, most people are quite allergic to the concept of paying more looking at the current market.
Posted by AndrueC over 7 years ago
Wireless will never be as good as a fixed solution. Towers are too contended and signal variability too great.
Posted by Michael_Chare over 7 years ago
Is it at all likely that the USC of 2Mbps will be met by 2012? Who would be responsible for achieving this. What would BT, who are the underlying provider at all small exchanges, have to do to achieve this?
Posted by CARPETBURN over 7 years ago
Discussing which party and broadband pledge is best is like deciding if its best to shoot yourself in the feet, elbows or knee caps.
Posted by seb (Favicon staff member) over 7 years ago
@Michael_Chare: BT could use something called "Broadband Extension Technology" to extend the availability of broadband on longer lines which might help in some rural areas. Other options include wireless among other things. It's not BT that's responsible for delivering this, although BT can apply for funding just like anyone else (and we expect they probably will in areas).
Posted by cyberdoyle over 7 years ago
If the BET solution is implemented that means the area affected will stay in the stone ages for another few decades. BET means bonding two copper pairs, which means the customer pays for two lines to get a pathetic service. It is all a con, and if BT get funded to do it then it amounts to a crime. It is cheaper to run fibre than another copper line to a rural property. That is what funding should be for, not a copper cabal patch up. more info on BET here
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
cd - fundamemtal fault in your understanding.

'BET is the current proposal by BT Openreach to widen this copper pipe. However, one of the key problems is that this very pipe is shared. It is shared, not only with your direct neighbours, but with all the other people in your vicinity (i.e. everyone who is on the same BT exchange). So, whenever they want to use it, you get less.'

Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
Everyone on the same exchange shares the cable my copper pair is on?

Please try and understand the issues.
Posted by wirelesspacman over 7 years ago
To be fair to Chris (1), I suspect that the paragraph you quoted was the result of a mis-edit by the bods who look after the web site

To be fair to Chris (2), there is a "version" of bonded copper doing the rounds that actually is shared!
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
But not used in the UK.
Posted by wirelesspacman over 7 years ago
It is being looked at though
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
By who?
Posted by wirelesspacman over 7 years ago
they are not saying publicly
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
So a system where the connection weaves in and out of every property is reliable?
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